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Logan-Wilson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Ashley R. Logan-Wilson was not disabled, and, thus, not entitled to child insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, or supplemental security income ("SSI") under XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed her disability application on April 27, 2011, alleging disability beginning on September 1, 2002. She claimed disability based on her learning disability and depression. Plaintiffs application was initially denied on July 29, 2011, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Such a hearing was held on December 8, 2011, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified. Delores Gonzales, an impartial vocational expert, also testified. By decision dated March 6, 2012, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Plaintiffs request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied, and Plaintiff appealed to this Court.

         On September 14, 2014, this Court reversed the decision of the ALJ and remanded the matter, directing the ALJ to reevaluate the residual functional capacity with respect to Plaintiffs pace limitation and perform an analysis of listing 12.05(c). On March 30, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing. Ms. Gonzales testified in person, and Richard Hutchison, Ph.D., an impartial medical expert, testified by telephone. The ALJ again determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act on May 28, 2015. On June 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when (1) she relied upon assumptions and incorrect findings in determining that Plaintiff performed substantial gainful activity as a home health aide; and (2) in her alternative findings, the ALJ relied upon assumptions and incorrect findings with regard to Plaintiffs impairments meeting or equaling listing 12.05, deficits in activities of daily living, residual functional capacity, and credibility.

         II. Facts

         The Court notes that Plaintiff alleged a substantial number of statements of undisputed material facts (Doc. 14-2) that were disputed by the Commissioner (Doc. 19-1). The Court has reviewed the statements, the responses, and the record, and, where appropriate, will accept facts as supported by the record.

         III. Standards

         The court's role on judicial review is to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Johnson v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 991, 992 (8th Cir. 2009). "Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citations omitted). The court may not reverse merely because substantial evidence exists in the record that would support a contrary outcome or because the court would have decided the case differently. See Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002).

         To determine whether the ALJ's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court is required to review the administrative record as a whole and to consider:

(1) The findings of credibility made by the ALJ;
(2) The education, background, work history, and age of the claimant;
(3) The medical evidence given by the claimant's treating physicians;
(4) The subjective complaints of pain and description of the claimant's physical activity and impairment;
(5) The corroboration by third parties of the claimant's physical impairment;
(6) The testimony of vocational experts based upon prior hypothetical questions which fairly set forth the claimant's physical impairment; and
(7) The testimony of consulting physicians.

Brand v. Sec'y of Dept. of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 623 F.2d 523, 527 (8th Cir. 1980).

         The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is "unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). "If a claimant fails to meet the criteria at any step in the evaluation of disability, the process ends and the claimant is determined to be not disabled." Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Eichelherger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590-91 (8th Cir. 2004)). First, the claimant must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). Second, the claimant must have a "severe impairment, " defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). The severity of mental disorders is determined by rating the claimant's degree of limitations in four areas of functioning: activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation (the "paragraph B criteria"). Id. § 404.1520a(c)(3). "The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on [his or] her ability to work." Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001).

         Third, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 404.1520(d). If the claimant has one of, or the medical equivalent of, these impairments, then the claimant is per se disabled without consideration of the claimant's age, education, or work history. Id.

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is defined as "the most a claimant can do despite [his] limitations." Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, he will not be found to be disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id.

         At step five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then he will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         IV. Decision of the ALJ (Tr. 389-405)

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") from July 2014 through the date of the decision, May 28, 2015, as a health home aid for her mother. She concluded that Plaintiff was paid by the State of Missouri $10 per hour, working 28 hours per week, which resulted in approximately $1, 120 per month in earnings.

         Plaintiff argued that she is allowed special work conditions, which in turn could not constitute SGA. However, the ALJ found that the earnings did not qualify as a subsidy by her employer because (1) there was no evidence that the State of Missouri received notice of any special request or conditions; (2) the work activity report completed by Plaintiffs mother showed that the claimant completed all usual work duties required of her position without reported accommodations; (3) the record showed that Plaintiff was occasionally tardy by 15 minutes, but otherwise had no attendance issues; (4) Plaintiff reported that she received help from her sister, which was contradicted by Plaintiffs testimony that her sister moved out of the house; and (5) Plaintiff was not receiving more per hour than another person would receive to perform. The ALJ concluded that "[s]ince there is no accommodation of pay or reduced work responsibilities; [Plaintiffs] work is not an accommodated or subsidized position." Tr. 392.

         The ALJ also found that Plaintiffs work was not an unsuccessful work attempt pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574 because she was performing SGA before notice of the decision, which in turn precluded her from being considered for a trial work period. Therefore, Plaintiffs earnings were not an exception to SGA and that she worked at the level of SGA since July 2014.

         The ALJ noted that the record did not show that Plaintiff worked from April 27, 2011, through June 2014. Therefore, "[i]n an abundance of caution, " the ALJ continued through the sequential evaluation as if Plaintiff had not worked at the SGA level beginning in July 2014 and continuing through the date of the ALJ's decision.

         The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of borderline intellectual functioning/mild mental retardation, major depressive disorder, and obesity, but that she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a moderate restriction in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace; and experienced no episodes of decompensation.

         The ALJ also determined that the evidence failed to establish the presence of a medically documented history of a chronic affective disorder of at least two years' duration that had caused more than a minimal limitation of ability to do basic work activities. Similarly, with regard to listing 12.05, [2] the ALJ concluded that the record fails to support deficits of adaptive functioning, which is a requirement for listing 12.05.[3]

         The ALJ determined that after careful consideration of the entire record, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the non-exertional limitation of routine, repetitive tasks involving occasional decisionmaking and occasional changes in the work setting. The ALJ limited production quotas to be based on end of workday measurements only and opined that the Plaintiff was capable of occasional ...

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